“Choose a neighbor before you choose a house.” Meg and I have lived this way for the whole of our lives, drawing on the wisdom of good people who in their own day wrestled with the perennial questions, “Who am I? How am I going to live?”
They are good questions for any day, but maybe specially so for the Fourth of July, our independence day. The truer truth is that “independence” is always twined together with dependence. A healthy social ecology is only possible when the “me” and the “we” are being lived out together. That is as true of dinner tables as it is neighborhoods as it is of public squares in every city small and large all over the world, from Shafter, California to Cairo, Egypt.
I thought of this yesterday in my weekly Wednesday morning at Caribou Coffee, where I meet with two neighbors and friends, Todd Deatherage and Mark Rodgers, and we talk about most things. Love and life, marriage and family, work and worship, our city and the world—vocation is a big enough word, a complex enough word, to handle it all. It is our neighborhood “third place,” as the sociologists call this setting that is neither home nor work, but a place where people gather for conversations about the stuff of life. We are well-known enough so that Mike, the owner, has my Earl Grey tea in a cup before I have even gotten to the cash register.
We talked about everything, it seemed. The Nationals game on Monday night that we went to together, my travel to Kansas City and LA last week, projects at work, tensions and debates in our city of Washington and all over the world—and it was here, talking about the “tensions and debates” that the me/we dynamic came alive, as it must.
Is there anything that we really care about where this is not true? Think of any public issue, any social and political question, and try to answer it without reference to the relationship of independence to dependence, of the way that we hold together honoring individual hope and the common good, what do I want and what do we need? This is what Alexis de Tocqueville saw as America’s genius in his study of us in 1834, observing that our habits of heart held together what a healthy democracy required.
We seem to be slipping, as the days pass. Almost everywhere and in everything, we have a harder and harder time imagining a choice that is not principally fixed on ME. It is true of the political right and the political left, from gun policy to sexual politics. And the consequence is a greater polarization. We cannot even consider a common good, an e pluribus unum.
So we will celebrate today with family and friends, our Independence Day, with a cookout in our yard and sparklers for the little ones– but with a longing for something more. Perhaps the questions are communal as well as individual, questions for all of us as they are questions for each of us. Who are we? How are we going to live?